Colette Gaiter, an artist and professor at the University of Delaware, and 2011 CultureStrike delegate, reflects on a local artist’s deft use of the “quality of compulsiveness” in his portrayals of transit and urban life. This originally appeared on Arts in a Changing America, a project that showcases creative responses to the demographic and cultural transformation of American society.
An artist friend once gave me this simple and perfect advice about pursuing my own creative work, “Do the work that only you can do.” It has stuck with me ever since. With so many disciplines and media available to artists it can be difficult to find that elusive thing that is what only you can do. I think art making always falls somewhere on a continuum between deliberate strategy and compulsion. All artists are drawn to particular kinds of creative activity—the thing that provides a jolt of adrenaline when the work is turning out as it should. Not necessarily as we intended, but as it should be.
I think the quality of compulsiveness is one of the things that makes “outsider art” compelling. The drive to spend time creating things that live outside of traditional art worlds, criticism and commerce forces artists to constantly defend themselves and justify what they are doing—internally and to others. Geraldo Gonzalez, the self-proclaimed “King of Transit” in the Delaware Valley, (a Mid-Atlantic region that includes Philadelphia, Wilmington, Delaware, and Camden, New Jersey) explains his work simply by stating that he loves drawing buses and commuter trains. He loves public transportation. Selected works from his huge cache of drawings hang in regional transit administrative offices.
At 23 years old, Gonzalez’s only formal art training was in high school, making him technically an “outsider artist”—one who operates outside of the established world of art degrees and traditional galleries. He is self-taught and follows his own passion and intuition in making his work. Gonzalez explains, “I started drawing buses at 15, in the summer of 2004. I got to know the routes and the area pretty well. I also met the drivers. I took pictures, printed them out and copied from them. In 2007 I started using a digital camera.”
Gonzalez is not only prolific in making his Crayola-bright animated drawings, but he is also proficient in putting them out into the world through social media. He has a blog, featuring tweets announcing new images or videos as he posts them. On YouTube his channel, “The Delaware Art Transit Program” shows videos he has edited of his process as well as finished pieces—all set to music. When I interviewed him he brought his camera and had a video online within a few days. The King of Transit’s work is also documented on Flickrand Facebook. Local parks, buildings, and city environments are subjects of other drawings, but buses are his passion. To say he is obsessed with them would not be an overstatement.
The regional transit administrators see Gonzalez and his work as promoting public transportation’s environmental advantages. Some pieces are literal advertisements, including text. In the less literal works city buses and trains are transformed from unremarkable elements of urban landscapes to objects of beauty and devotion. In some of Gonzalez’s drawings, the buses seem magical—as if they are going to take off and fly to an imaginary utopia. He transforms them with color and pencil strokes into glowing traveling machines that make people’s lives possible.
A few days a week, Gonzalez works at a doctor’s office doing digital filing, which explains his technical proficiency with computers. He is also a part time student at Delaware Technical Community College, studying business. He spends the rest of his time at downtown Wilmington’s Creative Vision Factory making drawings.
Gonzalez encountered Michael Kalmbach, the founder, and the Creative Vision Factory (CVF) in February of 2012. On its web site, CVF is described as fostering “the creative potential of individuals with behavioral health disorders in a studio art environment that cultivates integration with the local art community through a program of exhibitions, workshops, and communal workspace.”
Geraldo Gonzalez technically has a disability that makes him able to be part of the state-funded Creative Vision Factory. The mission of CVF is to encourage participants to use art in a way that is most useful to them. To some people, it is therapeutic, but not professional. One young woman who uses the studio there, a recovering substance abuser, had never done art in a serious way before. She comes to CVF to stay away from her old life, keep busy, talk to people and discover her creative self. Others have clear cognitive or physical disabilities that make it difficult for them to find jobs.
Geraldo and another artist Knicoma Frederick are the most accomplished artists currently at CVF. As director Michael Kalmbach said, “they set the tone for everyone else in terms of discipline and taking their work seriously.” Geraldo Gonzalez and The Creative Vision Factory are a perfect match. Gonzalez would do his work anywhere, since he is compelled to do it, but he finds the atmosphere there supporting and helpful. He is an important part of CVF’s community, sharing his insights and knowledge. In April of 2012, his work shared CVF’s gallery space with that of one other artist in a public exhibition opening on Wilmington’s monthly First Friday. This was his first major show.
In 2006, Gonzalez developed a technique of projecting images from photographs to enlarge and essentially “color” them. He uses crayon pencils, which give his drawings thick bright intense color and texture. His process is evolving into more original ways of presenting the same subject matter. Still drawing buses and other vehicles, he describes the more recent works as “3D” and “4D” because he is experimenting with different ways to represent space and work on multiple planes in the same image. Instead of simply representing what was in the original photograph he works from, he is expanding the image from his imagination.
Looking at many of his drawings at once (he has made hundreds…) it is clear that his work is evolving. He is learning to use color to create volume and dimension, experimenting with value and hue to make parts of the image recede into space or come forward from the background. I can think of few more mundane things than a photo of a parked bus. The street’s grey asphalt dominates the image area and the street markings provide most of the contrast. At some point, Geraldo’s imagination saw these dull scenes in color and made them happen on paper.
In some drawings, Gonzalez uses color in the opposite way, to create almost decorative flatness, turning shapes into puzzle pieces that fit together to form the image. The bus becomes hidden in the patterns that seem abstract at first glance. His work reminds me of Expressionist paintings that contain areas of flat fully saturated primary and secondary colors, like those of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner.
Using mostly primary and secondary colors, he keeps the colors pure. Sometimes there is a slight feathering at the edges between two colors, but that is as close to mixing as he gets.
In terms of content, Gonzalez’s work brings the term “magic realism” to mind. Some of his buses fly through the air, soaring over the tops of buildings, never having to deal with traffic. The air is pure and multi-colored instead of grey with bus exhaust. When passengers enter the interiors of these magical machines, they will daydream in full Technicolor on their way to work or school. Transformative. Geraldo Gonzalez’s drawings transform the public transportation experience.
The King of Transit is, at the core, a dedicated fan of his subject matter, drawing buses and trains with reverence and care. His work also promotes public transportation without overt proselytizing. Gonzalez finds the artistic community and support that he needs at the Creative Vision Factory along with artistic guidance from the director, Michael Kalmbach, an artist who has been trained in the established way by earning a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Delaware.
I am a professor in a university art department, teaching students who have been working at art much of their young lives and put together portfolios and endured a rigorous foundation year of classes before they can even start working in their area of interest. I wonder if Geraldo would make these kinds of images if he had taken the art school route to developing as an artist. He would be able to describe what he was doing with color in terms of color theory. He might work out his compositions differently. I suspect he would have been encouraged to branch out from his beloved buses and trains and try something different. I don’t know if I am fetishising his raw talent and drive or properly acknowledging the raw visual power of his obsession. Would similar works made by a college art student after years of figure drawing practice, learning art history and studying and following the rules reveal the expensive lessons in becoming an artist?
Gonzalez’s story embodies the ideal scenario for an outsider artist who did not study art in a postsecondary educational environment. He does instinctively what all art students are taught to do—finds his passion and works at it regularly, letting the work build on itself and teach him new ways of seeing and expressing. Geraldo Gonzalez starts with ubiquitous and relatively banal subject matter—urban public transit vehicles—and gives it back to us transformed. Any regular bus rider who had seen one of his drawings might imagine one of his multicolored scenes as the bus approaches, making the wait seem more worthwhile. Better yet, wouldn’t it be great if the ad spaces inside a bus contained his drawings, or the bus was wrapped in a big colorful image of itself? These ideas are in the works. Coming soon to a bus stop near you.